Despite a landmark agreement over mountaintop removal mine permitting, at least 13 Arch Coal Inc. workers will lose their jobs because of permit delays.Arch subsidiary Hobet Mining on Wednesday laid off 13 employees from the preparation plan at its Dal-Tex mining complex in Logan County.David Todd, an Arch Coal vice president, said the company decided that it would be more efficient to run the plant on only one shift, instead of two.The move eliminated the jobs of 13 of the plant's 44 workers. Those employees won't be reinstated until the end of 1999 at the earliest, Todd said.
The amount of coal being processed had dropped, he said, because the company waited for months to receive approval to expand the Dal-Tex operation.A 3,100-acre permit expansion for Dal-Tex - the largest mine in state history - was among three permits that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had temporarily halted in its effort to crack down on mountaintop removal mining."We've been unable to move onto the new permit because of the permit delays," Todd said.Last week, EPA announced it had settled part of an environmental group's lawsuit over mountaintop removal mining. The settlement will subject new mountaintop removal permits to more rigorous environmental impact studies before mining is allowed.
The Dal-Tex expansion was exempted from more rigorous regulation because company officials agreed to scale back the size of the mine's valley fills.According to an EPA statement, the amount of streams buried by fills was cut but 40 percent, from 12 acres of streams to 7.4 acres. The statement also said the mine will have a life of five years, instead of the 13 years that Hobet originally proposed.In a letter to citizens who commented at an EPA hearing on the Dal-Tex permit, EPA Region III Adminstrator Michael McCabe wrote, "This is a much better permit for nearby residents and for the environment than originally submitted and helps us move to the next stage of interim permit reforms."Several other mountaintop removal mining permits were at the same stage of the process as the Dal-Tex expansion. But they were not exempted from the new environmental study requirements.
During an interview on Wednesday, McCabe offered no clear explanation for handling the Dal-Tex permit differently.In late October, Arch Coal had threatened to lay off up to all 400 of the mine's workers if the EPA did not permit the mine expansion.Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert C. Byrd and Reps. Alan Mollohan, Nick Rahall and Bob Wise, all D-W.Va., wrote a joint letter urging EPA to issue the permit and avoid the layoffs. In a news release last week, McCabe thanked Byrd, Rahall and Wise for their input on the lawsuit settlement.
Todd said Arch Coal hopes that it can avoid further layoffs at Dal-Tex."If there are no further administrative delays and no litigation delays, we should be able to avoid any more layoffs," he said.But Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said her group will probably challenge the Dal-Tex expansion in court, especially since EPA exempted it from the new permitting requirements."The very idea that the worst permit to come out in a long time is exempted from this is unacceptable," Rank said. "We're certainly going to exercise all of our options in opposing that permit."Dick Kimbler, president of United Mine Workers Local 2935 at Dal-Tex, said Wednesday's layoffs were unexpected."We really didn't look for a layoff because they had a permit," Kimbler said. "There laid off 13, and there was no way we could prevent it.
"It was up to the company," he said. "There was nothing we could do about it." To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.